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  • Writer's pictureLisa Madsen Rubilar

A Quick Survey of Some YA Books That (In Some Way) I Wannabe

I recently completed a young adult novel, In the Outside, and am beginning the process of introducing the book to the world, also known as “finding a publisher.” The traditional path is to convince a literary agent that the book will actually interest readers, and that a publisher will be easily persuaded of that fact. One way to do this is to find published books similar to one’s own, which have already acquired an enthusiastic readership. Yes, writers help each other just by being successful!

So . . . I've been reading a lot of Young Adult books in search of those similar to mine in some way. Below are brief reviews of a few of them. I don't claim my book is like any of these, just that I particularly enjoyed them, and find them inspiring. Another caveat is that not all of these would be considered YA. They're all books that teens AND adults will enjoy.


The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee. I have only one beef with this book: it should have had a different title and cover. As it is, the flowery illustrations and the title imply that the book is marketed exclusively for teen girls—whereas it’s a fun and sprightly read for anyone. I'm a strong believer in marketing books with female protagonists to a wider audience. Boys can and should read about girls' adventures, just as girls can and should read about boys'. Fifteen-year-old Mimosa shares a special gift with her mother: they’re aromateurs whose heightened sense of smell tells them things about other people: like their mood at any given moment; whether they might be lying; what scent would make them fall in love. It’s the latter bit of information that makes it possible for them to create the perfect “love potions” for their clients. But love potions have a way of being administered to the wrong person. You can guess some of the rest, but not all of it. This book contains lots of happy surprises. It never struck the wrong note, scented or otherwise.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. What book marketed for children begins with an entire family having their throats cut? Well, one that won the Newbery Award in 2009. While the premise is bone-chilling, the toddler who escapes the carnage finds refuge among very friendly ghosts in a nearby graveyard, and is raised by someone who doesn’t quite belong to the living world. As with all of Gaiman’s books, I found this one enthralling.


Nation by Terry Pratchett. The premise of this book is even more horrifying than the first. Here, everyone on a ship dies in a wreck except for Daphne; and everyone on an entire island dies in a tidal wave except for Mau. Both of them must relearn who they are, what they are capable of, and what they are still capable of believing. Pratchett is a master wordsmith, and—despite the desperately serious subject matter—incredibly funny to boot.


The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. Death is at the heart of this novel as well. This time, Leigh Chen Sanders’ mother has taken her own life, and comes back as a mystical bird with red feathers. That no one else can see her bird/mother does not deter Leigh from doing everything she can to be where the bird is, including traveling to Taiwan to stay with her mother’s estranged parents. The burning of mystical incense allows Leigh to return to moments in the past, and see them through others’ eyes. X.R. Pan deftly weaves this magic realism into the everyday world.


Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff. This time, it’s a beloved uncle who has recently died of AIDS, leaving eleven-year-old Bug and her mother alone in the house they had shared with him, a house that was already haunted by other ghosts. As the book progresses, the ghosts in the house get scarier. One takes over Bug’s image whenever she looks in the mirror, so she avoids doing so altogether. Even her gentle uncle’s ghost becomes angrily insistent (slamming doors, tossing papers) until at last Bug looks in a box under his bed and discovers a message from him. I won’t give away what Bug discovers, but Too Bright to See is a great way to introduce young people in a sensitive way to a topic that can be intimidating or confusing. The book was a finalist for The National Book Award in 2021, and I thought it would win.


The Obsidian Blade by Pete Hautman. Tucker’s father disappears into thin air one day while working on the roof. An hour later, he comes strolling down the road with a strange girl in tow who doesn’t even speak their language. After that, Tucker’s life is never the same. Soon both his parents disappear, and Tucker is left in the care of a feckless uncle. But now he knows how, and maybe where, to look for his parents. This is the kind of page-turner that made me neglect every to-do on my list. I want to read the other books in the Klaatu Diskos series, but I need to get some stuff done before I embark.


Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. Halli lives in a cloistered valley between the Trow Moors and the Northern Mountains. Nobody goes beyond the heroes’ cairns that surround the valley, because the dreaded Trows live there. Nobody has ever actually seen a Trow, but the legends describe them as horrible beasts with long long arms who—when night falls—issue forth to drag you underground. For most of this entrancing book, I thought Trows existed only in legend, but then . . . I began to wonder. Stroud’s prose is beautiful. A true pleasure to read.


The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater. I most recently read her post-series sequel, Call Down the Hawk, which has the all the usual verve of Stiefvater’s writing. But The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves are my favorite books in the series. Steifvater incorporates magical or paranormal elements into a world that otherwise feels very much like the rural Virginia I know and love. And she creates a ghost so real that nobody knows he is a ghost until one day . . . they (and we) just know. Her other characters are equally engaging and more consistently solid: Gansy, Blue, Adam, Ronan, and even the “Gray Man” who happens to be an assassin, and whom Blue’s mother happens to fall in love with. In a good sort of way. Blue and Adam might also have something going on. Or maybe it’s really Blue and Gansy.


Dune by Frank Herbert. I read this book first when I was a teenager, and have never forgotten the experience. It was a hot summer day, and I was reading in my cool basement room. I fell asleep with the window open, and found myself on Arrakis, the planet also known as Dune. I was wearing a still suit, taking sips of brackish water, looking out across the desert. I saw one of the sand worms in the distance. I smelled the spice. The dream felt intensely real because I was already immersed in deeply imagined world that Herbert had created. Believe it or not, Herbert had a hard time finding a publisher. I—along with millions of other fans—am glad he didn’t give up. A couple of months ago, I re-read the book because I wanted it fresh in my mind before watching the new movie (directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by him, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth). My son was so insistent that I watch the movie on the big screen that he took me there himself. He was right. The movie captures the soul of the book, while also creating a feast for the eye and ear (thank you, Hans Zimmer). I compare the experience to watching The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Amazing.

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